Michel Barnier admitted future of EU ‘difficult topic in France’
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The EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has sparked claims of a presidential bid in France’s 2022 elections after he announced the formation of a new faction among the right-wing Les Républicains: “Patriot and European”. He said in February: “I am available to work with all those who want it under the banner of ‘Patriot and European’, so as not to leave this theme to others.” A possible bid by Mr Barnier is being closely watched by French President Emmanuel Macron’s camp, as he would eat at the pro-European, centre-right electorate.
When asked about it, a minister claimed on condition of anonymity: “There’s a Biden moment.
“Grey hair could become fashionable.”
As tensions in the Elysee Palace are set to rise, unearthed reports shed light on what Mr Barnier’s vision for Europe could be if he becomes President.
In an interview with euroactiv.fr in 2013, the Brexit negotiator, who at the time was serving as the EU’s Internal Market Commissioner, came out in favour of limits being imposed on the European project.
But he also emphasised, while praising Angela Merkel’s Germany, that Europe should have dared to venture into new areas such as defence and industrial policy.
He said: “The country’s budget, the content and quality of reforms remain the responsibility of the government of France and the Parliament.”
He then stressed that French “sovereignty” on such areas should never be called into question.
His comments came as the European Commission issued Paris with prescriptive recommendations on economic reforms – a move that fell foul with former French President Francois Hollande, who urged the EU not to “dictate” reforms to member states.
Mr Barnier backed claims saying Europe should have thought of rolling back policies in areas where national or regional governments were more efficient – in line with the “subsidiarity principle”.
However, he noted that in other areas, the EU should do more.
He explained: “I will argue for a European industrial policy.
“It is important that European leaders again find the courage and boldness we had with the ECSC [European Coal and Steel Community].
“I will argue for a European Defence Community, which will not be the same that we had imagined in 1954.
“These are issues on which Europeans together must do more and better.”
Many ideas had already been put forward, including giving the Commission powers to vet national budgets and set up an EU “treasury office” responsible for issuing common debt.
But Mr Barnier deplored that such discussions were not brought to the attention of the general public and national lawmakers.
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He suggested France appoint a group of respected politicians to prepare a report on Europe and put it out for debate to the wider public.
He added: “Germany usually has more precise ideas than ours about the future of Europe.
“In France, it is a difficult topic, as the issue is divisive for both his centre-right UMP party, and the ruling socialist party.
“What I would dream of is a kind of national convention, a national public debate on the European vision of France.
“Good ideas can be everywhere – with Mr Mélenchon, the UMP, the Greens, the centrists…. We must also listen to other stances, such as those brought forward by the extreme right.
“The public debate requires more democracy and listening to people.
“We cannot do Europe for the people without them.”
Something similar to what Mr Barnier envisioned is now set to begin in May.
Last week, the European Parliament and member states gave the green light to the joint declaration on the Conference of the Future of Europe, negotiated under the aegis of Portugal’s presidency of the Council of the EU.
The proposed declaration, a four-page document presented to the ambassadors of the 27 member states in Brussels, was agreed on Thursday at a meeting of the Permanent Representatives Committee (Coreper), before being discussed on Friday by the European Parliament’s Conference of Presidents.
After a long impasse regarding the holding of this event aimed at EU citizens, which was originally meant to start in May 2020 but was postponed due to coronavirus and the different positions taken by the EU institutions, the Portuguese presidency came up with a new format.
The conference will now begin in May under the joint presidency of Ursula von der Leyen, David Sasssoli and António Costa as President-in-office of the EU Council until the end of June, when he will be replaced by the Prime Minister of Slovenia, which succeeds Portugal as holder of the presidency on July 1.
The Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) is a proposal of the European Commission and the European Parliament, announced in 2019.
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Its objective is to look at the medium to long term future of the EU and what reforms should be made to its policies and institutions.
It is intended that the Conference should involve citizens, including a significant role for young people, civil society, and European institutions as equal partners and last for two years.
However, in a recent report, political scientists Dr Karolina Borońska-Hryniewiecka and Guillaume Sacriste argued the declaration actually raises doubts as to the truly democratic and inclusive character of the forthcoming event.
The two experts believe the Conference could actually prove to be counter-productive for the EU.
They explained: “In its original position on the CoFoE from June 24, 2020, the Council foresaw setting up of ‘a steering group composed of representatives of each institution on an equal footing, as well as the current and incoming COSAC rotating presidencies’.
“COSAC (Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union) is the most important transnational forum of cooperation among national parliaments in the EU, which brings together representatives of parliamentary committees specialised in European affairs.
“The inclusion of national MPs into the steering group of the CoFoE has been a sensible and right decision due to the fact that national parliaments constitute the second most important – next to the European Parliament – strand of democratic representation in the EU’s multi-level political system.
“They also play a critical role in ensuring ownership and implementation of European policies at the national level.”
Yet, the authors noted, in its newly revised position, the Council has now decided to relegate COSAC from a full member of the conference “steering group” to a mere observer affiliated by the renamed “executive board”.
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